This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
You could say something changed in the early 1980s. In the face of President Reagan's conservative, anti-drugs policies, some in the punk scene started to see drugs and alcohol as another means to control the masses. By now, you likely know that they'd become known as straight edgers, a subgroup of sorts that decided they needed to be strong and healthy to challenge the status quo. And that meant no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes and, for some, no casual sex. Plus, if drugs and alcohol were for rebels, nothing was more rebellious than rebelling against rebels.
Their philosophy was crystallised by Minor Threat in the 1981 songs “Straight Edge” and “Out of Step” from 1983. Straight edge never grew into a cohesive movement with a manifesto; it was more of a current influenced by bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits. After spreading from the US to the UK, then across Europe in the late 1980s, some say the movement died off in the 2000s.
But lots of people are living a straight edge life today, often with added veganism. According to the World Health Organisation, the number of drinkers is declining in most European countries and last December, a YouGov poll found fewer UK respondents would be doing Dry January this year because almost one-third of people surveyed don't bother with booze anyway. We spoke to straight edgers about what's it like doing Dry January all year round.
Federica Pagani, 43
Primary school teacher
Straight edge for 27 years
I smoked a few cigarettes and weed when I was a teen, just out of curiosity, but when I was 16, I started drinking quite heavily. My group of friends was really into music; we used to exchange cassette tapes all the time. When I got a hold of Minor Threat's music, I felt everything click. Choosing a vegan life without drinking, smoking and drugs helped me respect myself, my body and my mind. That’s what straight edge means to me.
Being straight edge was more popular in the past – maybe we needed more of a change within the punk culture. Not many people stuck with it. I don't even see them at concerts anymore. Actively working to be a better person every day is not easy at all, especially with all the BS life has in stock for you. In spite of everything, I still believe in it.
Gab de la Vega, 34
English teacher and musician
Straight edge for 10 years
I started smoking in middle school and drinking, mostly beer. I never did drugs besides weed. I’ve been playing in hardcore punk bands for a long time, but the straight edge movement wasn’t big in my friendship circle. In my early twenties, people in my life started abusing alcohol and drugs and I took another road.
In my town, you can count straight edge followers on one hand. Not taking part in the social rituals organised around drugs and alcohol can make you feel quite isolated because you’re just not interested in that stuff. That being said, I still hang out with friends who drink. People think being straight edge makes you boring as hell. I like to prove them wrong.
Serena Mazzini, 31
Straight edge for 10 years
I grew up in a small town and when I went to university in Bologna at 19, I didn’t know anyone. The quickest way to make friends was to drink a lot and get sucked into in a world of partying and booze. Then, one of my best friends died after taking drugs – actually, she was drugged and found dead. At the time I was quite self-destructive. I understood I had to change, also for her.
I’ve always listened to punk and hardcore, but the straight edge band Have Heart helped me overcome that phase. I got into them when I was 21. And now, I don’t smoke and I haven’t done drugs in ten years. Sometimes I make an exception for alcohol if I want to try a local drink when I’m travelling. At work functions, I’m constantly asked why I’m not drinking and people think I’m pregnant at weddings. I don’t take it personally but sometimes I wonder if there is an invisible moral law that forces people to drink.
I could never go back; I think I’d feel physically awful. Plus, there’s more to being straight edge than not drinking or taking drugs, it’s also about political positions on the environment, animal rights and human rights, all things I’ve heard about for the first time from bands on the scene. In this sense, this community helped me be a better person.
Luca Pala, 45
Bass player in a vegan straight edge band
Straight edge for 29 years
I haven’t touched alcohol since 1990, when I was 16 years old. I was already a Slayer fan, but when I read an interview by the Youth of Today, I was struck by the courage of their personal choices and their positive approach, full of political and social messages. I wanted to show everyone that you could have fun sober – some friends admired that, others couldn’t stand me. With time, my straight edge vegan approach evolved to embrace the idea of being totally drug-free, meaning refusing all mind-altering substances, including caffeine.
I became a parent quite young, I have two sons, aged 19 and eight years old, and a daughter who is 14. I know I’ve made some mistakes; I wanted to keep them away from everything that I thought was bad. Then I realised they had the right to go on their own path and experiment. I just hope they’ll understand my approach is meant to help them face difficulties in life. I’m quite optimistic – my eldest is straight edge too.